Microsoft has rapidly improved its support for wireless networking since the initial version of Windows XP in 2001. In that release, wireless access occurred through a very simple "Connect To" link in the Start Menu (Figure). As it first shipped XP was fairly insecure and would in fact connect to unprotected wireless networks on its own. This behavior was changed in Service Pack 1 (SP1).
The start of today's wireless networking UIs in Windows 7 really dates back to Service Pack 2 (SP2) for XP, where Microsoft added a nice Wireless Connection interface that presented the available wireless networks in a fairly attractive way.
Vista's contributions were revolutionary and, as is so often the case, occurred largely under the hood. Microsoft completely rewrote the networking stack and reworked a lot of the UIs. It introduced the now-familiar "Home, Work, Public" network location identification scheme and the notion of networking profiles. Vista's Connect to a network interface was similar to that of XP with SP2, but added right-click actions for getting more information and diagnosing problems.
And then we come to Windows 7. Thanks to the foundational rewrite in Vista, Microsoft didn't have to overhaul the networking stack again, so it took the opportunity to reexamine the user interfaces that users access to interact with the system's wireless networking capabilities. And the key interface it came up with is called View Available Networks (VAN).
View Available Networks is accessed via the Network icon in the notification area (what used to be called the network "connectoid"). This icon has various states, which vary according to your connectivity status and the types of available networks (wired/wireless). When there is one or more available wireless network, and the PC is not connected to any network, you'll see a gold starburst on the icon as shown here:
If you're connected to a network but do not have Internet access--as can be the case with an airport or hotel wireless network before you've paid for the service--you'll see something like the icon shown here:
And of course, when you are connected to a wireless network--happy days, indeed--you should see something like this:
As for the View Available Wireless Networks interface, you can find this by clicking on the Network icon. What you see here will vary depending on where you are and how many wireless networks are available.
To connect to a particular network, click it and then click the Connect button that appears.
If it's a network to which you've connected before, you'll be connected automatically without any intermediate steps. Otherwise, if it's a protected network, you'll need to enter the passcode. And then you'll need to set the network location.
VAN works for both traditional, Wi-Fi-style wireless networks as well as 3G/4G-based WWAN-type wireless networks. In fact, you can connect to multiple wireless networks if you have multiple adapters (like a Wi-Fi adapter and a 3G broadband adapter). Additionally, it provides a link to access the Network and Sharing Center, which debuted in Windows Vista. But that, of course, is another story.